Water Hazards: The Truth About Drowning and Hypothermia After Falling Overboard
The daily duties of marine workers pose significant threats to their safety. In addition to vessel hazards, equipment failures, and collision risks, even minor slip and fall accidents can have drastic effects when on open water. However, despite the numerous dangers in which these men and women are submerged, one fear tends to float to the top—the fear of being thrown overboard.
Dangers of Being Thrown Overboard
Drowning is the number-one concern for maritime workers when they or a co-worker falls overboard. In addition to the possibility of being knocked unconscious on the way down, the water’s current and wake of the ship can easily pull the victim under the water, making it impossible to breathe.
Now, rather than going into the horrific specifics of what happens during the drowning process—which you can probably imagine on your own— we’re simply going to say that if you fall off a vessel, your only chance of survival is pegged on whether someone witnessed the incident. Unfortunately, if you’re lucky enough to have your crew members rally and pull you out of the water before you asphyxiate, you still may be at risk.
Although drowning has the greatest fatality rate, it isn’t the only consequence that faces a worker when he’s thrown from an oil rig or ship. In addition to concerns such as severe impact injuries from hitting the vessel and laceration injuries from propellers and environmental debris, if you’re lucky enough to be pulled from the water alive, you still may be in danger of the following conditions:
- Late or secondary drowning. Complications associated with inhaling water into to the lungs can lead to suffocation within 24 hours of the “drowning” incident. Complications can include pneumonia from too much fluid in the lungs, swelling of the lungs or throat from salt water, or lung damage that prevents normal breathing.
- Immersion syndrome. Depending on the water temperature when you become submerged, the shock of cold water can provoke cardiac arrhythmia and constriction of the heart muscles. If not treated immediately, the condition could lead to a full cardiac arrest.
- Brain damage. When you start to asphyxiate in water, your brain will fail to get the oxygen it needs; rather than breathing air, you’re breathing water. The lack of oxygen, known as hypoxia, can cause brain cells to suffocate and die faster than it takes your lungs to fill. Therefore, you may have time to be rescued before you suffocate, but the longer you go without sufficient air supply, the more brain cells will die, putting you at risk for brain damage
- Hypothermia (Stage 1). Seawater is often cold, and it may rapidly bring down the body temperature of a submerged person. The first stage of hypothermia occurs when the body temperature falls between 95 and 96.6 degrees. Symptoms may include shivering, goose bumps, fatigue, numbness in hands and feet, loss of coordination, quick breathing, and an upset stomach.
- Hypothermia (Stage 2). This occurs when the body temperature is between 91 and 94.8 degrees. Symptoms may include confusion, intense shivering, lips, ears, fingers, and toes turning blue, pale skin, and trouble controlling muscles.
- Hypothermia (Stage 3). This occurs when the body temperature falls below 89.6 degrees. Symptoms may include loss of consciousness, being irrational or incoherent, trouble speaking, amnesia, inability to use hands, and puffy, blue skin. Shivering stops. Death can occur at this stage.
Offshore vessels and oil rigs should be equipped with numerous life vests and lifesaver rings in case of an accidental plunge into the Gulf. However, despite this safety requirement, many mariners continue to perform duties close to the water’s edge without adequate safety gear. In fact, a recent report from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration concluded that falling overboard or drowning was the second major cause of death for maritime workers, with the majority of victims failing to have life vests on during their fall.
Learning, Caring, and Sharing to Avoid a Senseless Tragedy
Before you clicked on this article, did you know all the dangers you could face if you fell off your work vessel? Did you realize that drowning is only one of the many concerns you must prepare for when working offshore? Would you like to learn more about your and your family’s maritime work risks?
In the comment section provided on this page, please share your concerns. We’ll do our best to help answer your questions and help you plan for the future.
Please share this article with your friends and family on Facebook and help them understand that drowning isn’t the only result of being thrown overboard. If they work on the water, they need to know the signs that show secondary effects of being thrown overboard—especially those that may point toward secondary drowning and hypothermia.